I remembered now how that summer she’d written a long poem about the blind willow and explained it all to us. That was the only homework assignment she did that summer. She made up a story based on a dream she’d had one night, and as she lay in bed for a week she wrote this long poem. My friend said he wanted to read it, but she was still revising it, so she turned him down; instead, she drew those pictures and summarized the plot.
A young man climbed up the hill to rescue the woman the blind-willow pollen had put to sleep.
“That’s got to be me,” my friend said.
She shook her head. “No, it isn’t you.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” she said, a fairly serious look on her face. “I don’t know why I know that. But I do. You’re not angry, are you?”
“You bet I am,” my friend frowned, half joking.
Pushing his way through the thick blind willows, the young man slowly made his way up the hill. He was the first one ever to climb the hill once the blind willows took over. Hat pulled down over his eyes, brushing away with one hand the swarms of flies buzzing around him, the young man kept climbing. To see the sleeping woman. To wake her from her long, deep sleep.
“But by the time he reached the top of the hill the woman’s body had basically been eaten up already by the flies, right?” my friend said.
“In a sense,” his girlfriend replied.
“In a sense being eaten by flies makes it a sad story, doesn’t it?” my friend said.
“Yes, I guess so,” she said after giving it some thought. “What do you think?” she asked me.
“Sounds like a sad story to me,” I replied.
It was twelve twenty when my cousin came back. He was carrying a small bag of medicine and had a sort of unfocused look on his face. After he appeared at the entrance to the cafeteria it took some time for him to spot me and come on over. He walked awkwardly, as if he couldn’t keep his balance. He sat down across from me and, like he’d been too busy to remember to breathe, took a huge breath.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
“Mmm,” he said. I waited for him to say more, but he didn’t.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
He nodded silently.
“You want to eat here? Or do you want to take the bus into town and eat there?”
He looked uncertainly around the room. “Here’s fine,” he said. I bought lunch tickets and ordered the set lunches for both of us. Until the food was brought over to us my cousin gazed silently out the window at the same scenery I’d been looking at—the sea, the row of zelkovas, the sprinkler.
At the table beside us a nicely decked-out middle-aged couple were eating sandwiches and talking about a friend of theirs who had lung cancer. How he’d quit smoking five years ago but it was too late, how he’d vomit blood when he woke up in the morning. The wife asked the questions, the husband gave the answers. In a certain sense, the husband explained, you can see a person’s whole life in the cancer they get.
Our lunches consisted of Salisbury steaks and fried whitefish, salad and rolls. We sat there, across from each other, silently eating. The whole time we were eating the couple next to us droned on and on about how cancer starts, why the cancer rate’s gone up, why there isn’t any medicine to combat it.
“Everywhere you go it’s the same,” my cousin said in a flat tone, gazing at his hands. “The same old questions, the same tests.”
We were sitting on a bench in front of the hospital, waiting for the bus. Every once in a while the breeze would rustle the green leaves above us.
“Sometimes you can’t hear anything at all?” I asked him.
“That’s right,” my cousin answered. “I can’t hear a thing.”
“What does that feel like?”
He tilted his head to one side and thought about it. “All of a sudden you can’t hear anything. But it takes a while before you realize what’s happened. By then you can’t hear a thing. It’s like you’re at the bottom of the sea wearing earplugs. That continues for a while. All the time you can’t hear a thing, but it’s not just your ears. Not being able to hear anything is just part of it.”
“Does it bother you?”
He shook his head, a short, definite shake. “I don’t know why, but it doesn’t bother me that much. It is inconvenient, though. Not being able to hear anything.”
I tried to picture it, but the image wouldn’t come.
“Did you ever see John Ford’s movie Fort Apache?” my cousin asked.
“A long time ago,” I said.
“It was on TV recently. It’s really a good movie.”
“Um,” I affirmed.
“In the beginning of the movie there’s this new colonel who’s come to a fort out west. A veteran captain comes out to meet him when he arrives. The captain’s played by John Wayne. The colonel doesn’t know much about what things are like in the west. And there’s an Indian uprising all around the fort.”
My cousin took a neatly folded white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his mouth.
“Once he gets to the fort the colonel turns to John Wayne and says, ‘I did see a few Indians on the way over here.’ And John Wayne, with this cool look on his face, replies, ‘Don’t worry. If you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren’t any there.’ I don’t remember the actual lines, but it went something like that. Do you get what he means?”
I couldn’t recall any lines like that from Fort Apache. It struck me as a little abstruse for a John Ford movie. But it had been a while since I’d seen the film.
“I think it means that what can be seen by anybody isn’t all that important…I guess.”
My cousin frowned. “I don’t really get it either, but every time somebody sympathizes with me about my ears that line comes to me. ‘If you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren’t any there.’”
“Is that strange?” my cousin asked.
“Yep,” I laughed. And he laughed. It’d been a long time since I’d seen him laugh.
After a while my cousin said, like he was unburdening himself, “Would you look inside my ears for me?”
“Look inside your ears?” I asked, a little surprised.
“Just what you can see from the outside.”
“Okay, but why do you want me to do that?”
“I don’t know,” my cousin blushed. “I just want you to see what they look like.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll give it a whirl.”
My cousin sat facing away from me, tilting his right ear toward me. He had a really nicely shaped ear. It was on the small side, but the earlobe was all puffy, like a freshly baked madeleine. I’d never looked at anybody’s ear so intently before. Once you start observing it closely, the human ear—its structure—is a pretty mysterious thing. With all these absurd twists and turns to it, bumps and depressions. Maybe evolution determined this weird shape was the optimum way to collect sounds, or to protect what’s inside. Surrounded by this asymmetrical wall, the hole of the ear gapes open like the entrance to a dark, secret cave.
I pictured my friend’s girlfriend, microscopic flies nesting in her ear. Sweet pollen stuck to their tiny legs, they burrow into the warm darkness inside her, sucking up all the juices, laying tiny eggs inside her brain. But you can’t see them, or even hear the sound of their wings.
“That’s enough,” my cousin said.
He spun around to sit facing forward, shifting around on the bench. “So, see anything unusual?”
“Nothing different as far as I could see. From the outside at least.”
“Anything’s okay—even a feeling you got or something.”
“Your ear looks normal to me.”
My cousin looked disappointed. Maybe I had said the wrong thing.
“Did the treatment hurt?” I asked.
“No, it didn’t. Same as always. They just rummaged around in the same old spot. Feels like they’re going to wear it out. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like my own ear anymore.”
“There’s the number twenty-eight,” my cousin said after a while, turning to me. “That’s our bus, right?”
I’d been lost in thought. I looked up when he said this and saw the bus slowing down as it went round the curve coming up the slope. This wasn’t the kind of brand-new bus we’d ridden over on but one of the older buses I remembered. A sign with the number 28 was hanging on the front. I tried to stand up from the bench, but I couldn’t. Like I was caught up in the middle of a powerful current, my limbs wouldn’t respond.
I’d been thinking of the box of chocolates we’d taken when we went to that hospital on that long-ago summer afternoon. The girl had happily opened the lid to the box only to discover that the dozen little chocolates had completely melted, sticking to the paper between each piece and to the lid itself. On the way to the hospital my friend and I had parked the motorcycle by the seaside, and lay around on the beach just talking and hanging out. The whole while we’d let that box of chocolates lie out in the hot August sun. Our carelessness, our self-centeredness, had wrecked those chocolates, made one fine mess of them all. We should have sensed what was happening. One of us—it didn’t matter who—should have said something. But on that afternoon, we didn’t sense anything, just exchanged a couple of dumb jokes and said goodbye. And left that hill still overgrown with blind willows.
My cousin grabbed my right arm in a tight grip.
“Are you all right?” he asked me.
His words brought me back to reality, and I stood up from the bench. This time I had no trouble standing. Once more I could feel on my skin the sweet May breeze. For a few seconds I stood there in a strange, dim place. Where the things I could see didn’t exist. Where the invisible did. Finally, though, the real number 28 bus stopped in front of me, its entirely real door opening. I clambered aboard, heading off to some other place.
I rested my hand on my cousin’s shoulder. “I’m all right,” I told him.
— TRANSLATED BY PHILIP GABRIEL